One simple idea to improve the mail

I posted this suggestion before and it didn’t get much traction, but with the US Postal Service bleeding money and probably eliminating Saturday delivery it’s worth bringing out once more. The basic idea is to make mail more like e-mail so that postal addresses are easier to remember and don’t have to change when people move.

Here’s how DARPA elegantly expressed the basic way to send information on the internet back in 1981:

A distinction is made between names, addresses, and routes. A name indicates what we seek. An address indicates where it is. A route indicates how to get there.

It’s the distinction between names and addresses that’s important. With email, the name is an email account and the address is a number called an IP address that identifies the server hosting the account. So if you wanted to send a message to me, for example, the name would be “jacob@jacobgrier.com” and the address would be a series of digits like “123.456.789.” You only need the name, not the address. Databases called the DNS registry link the name to the correct IP address so that the message gets to my inbox.

This is great because it allows people to send me messages even if they have no idea where my server is. They don’t have to know what my hard-to-remember IP address is and I don’t have to inform them if I move the site to a new host. I just need to tell the DNS registry that the IP address has changed and it takes care of the matter for everyone.

Physical mail doesn’t work this way. Unlike email servers, the US Postal Service collapses name and address into one unit. If you want to send me a message via USPS you can’t just write my name on an envelope, you also need to know my current physical address. This is a huge inconvenience! It means that every time I move I have to inform everyone who sends me mail that my address has changed and they have to update their address books. It’s a time-consuming and error-prone process.

Does it have to be this way or is the technology cheap enough now that we could make mail more like email? From my original post:

Why should we have to remember cumbersome physical addresses and update all our contacts when we move? It would be a lot easier to simply use the equivalent of a domain name address and associate it in a database with a physical mailing location. Call it a Postal Name System (PNS). Everyone could have their own, easily memorized address to use for life. When people move, they just notify the PNS of the change and their postal name keeps functioning seamlessly, associating their postal address with their new physical location.

In other words, there’s no longer any reason why the physical locations where we live and work should have anything to do with the postal addresses people use to send us stuff.

One’s email address and postal address could even be the same thing. When your server changes you’d tell the DNS, when your home changes you’d tell the PNS. Regardless of whether correspondents wanted to send you an email or a letter, all they’d need to know is one easily remembered name that never needs to change.

The obvious objection is that postal workers still need a physical address printed on the package to make the final delivery, but USPS already deals with this problem for automated mail forwarding. Machines scan an address, match it against a forwarding database, and put on a corrected label if forwarding has been requested. The idea proposed above could use a similar process on a much larger scale.

A second problem is how we transition from our current addressing system to the new one. This seems solvable by the methods discussed in the post and comments on this forum. International shipping would create difficulties, so the system might have to be limited to locations in the US, at least initially.

A benefit would be a new revenue stream for USPS if the service charges to register names. If it’s offered as a premium service I think many people would gladly pay a reasonable amount for it. They might even register multiple names for the same reasons they have multiple email addresses, separating them as personal or work, public or private. A DNS-like system wouldn’t have to replace the current one, it could just work on top of it for people who opt-in.

Is this idea too good to be true? Possibly. I don’t want to feign expertise in an industry I know little about and the fact that it hasn’t already been implemented suggests there must be other obstacles. I’m curious what those are; perhaps printing new labels is too expensive and time consuming? On the other hand, it might be an idea that’s just now becoming technologically feasible. With the Postal Service in such bad shape it’s worth considering. It won’t make up for the fact that email has largely replaced sending physical messages, but it would reduce the transaction cost of using the mail.

Additional notes: There’s one blog devoted to promoting this idea. Unfortunately it stopped after one post. The Intelligent Mail program offers address correction services to some companies. Intriguingly, USPS once sought control of the .us top-level domain. Might they have been considering a similar evolution more than a decade ago?

An addendum few people will care about

Sort of related to the previous post, I realized recently that I’ve been using a seriously flawed metric for this blog’s RSS traffic. In a post a few months ago about the selfish benefits of using Twitter I wrote:

I no longer count on a blog post to get traffic on its own. My number of subscribers on Google Reader has languished around 160 for months while in a little over a year I’ve picked up more than 550 followers on Twitter. Today if I want a post to get attention I link to it on Twitter and Facebook.

The morning links feature and the prominent placement of the RSS icon at the upper right of the page are both intended to encourage RSS subscriptions, so the total failure to increase the number of subscribers in Google Reader was disappointing.

It turns out I just wasn’t looking in the right place. When I redesigned the site last year, I kept the RSS feed at the same URL so that it would keep working. However I did change the name of it from this blog’s old title, “Eternal Recurrence,” to simply my name. This apparently caused Google Reader to treat it as a new RSS feed and so none of the new subscribers showed up in the version of the feed I check in Reader. I thought I had lost 10 or so subscribers over the past year; in fact, I’ve gained about 120. That’s not a huge number, but taken as a percentage of where this blog started before the redesign it’s a major increase. Twitter still showed faster growth, however RSS for this site was not as dead as I’d led myself to believe.

If you’re a blogger keeping track of your RSS subscribers, make sure you’re accounting for all of your feeds. (I now have three, including one from my MovableType days that has only seven subscribers in Google Reader.)

To link or not to link your feeds?

A few weeks ago I linked to an open letter by Tim Maly politely asking that we all unlink our feeds, i.e. stop automatically syncing our blog/Facebook/Twitter/Foursquare/etc. accounts. Here’s an excerpt, but read the whole thing:

I noticed that you’ve started automatically importing your feed from that other service. I can certainly understand why you’d want to do that. Heaven forbid that anyone miss any of your incredibly insightful commentary and linking, just because they don’t use that other service. But it creates a problem for me.

You see, I already follow you on that other service. This means that I see everything you post twice/thrice/quarce.

This puts me in something of a bind. I don’t want to stop following you on this service or that service. For one thing, sometimes you post things to this service that don’t appear in that service. For another, I’d miss out on the unique constellation of contacts and conversation that each service provides. But neither do I want to keep filtering redundant updates in each service.

There’s a lot I agree with in that letter and in the past few weeks I’ve had several conversations with friends about when and when not to link one’s feeds. Despite my general agreement with what’s written above, I actually do link some of my feeds. This blog’s RSS and my Twitter feed both export into Facebook. However I don’t link my blog to Twitter and I don’t link Foursquare to anything. Perhaps I’m just rationalizing my own behavior but I think this is a defensible setup. And if I’m wrong, I hope you’ll tell me; I’d like to not be annoying on the internet.

Reasons to link your feeds to Facebook: The main reason I link my feeds to Facebook is that Facebook is really, really huge. Facebook has made the leap from niche social networking site to essential fabric of the web. According to its statistics for the press the site has more than 400 million active users; by at least one metric, it receives roughly as much traffic as Google. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but RSS readers and Twitter have a much more specialized user base (see “RSS reader market in disarray, continues to decline” and “18 million Twitter users by end of 2009;” I wish I had better numbers for RSS). Therefore if content is not exported into Facebook, many users who would presumably be happy to read it will miss it simply because they don’t use RSS or Twitter.

One complaint about exporting one’s Twitter updates into Facebook is that the formatting is so different. Fortunately @replies are now automatically filtered from Facebook so this is less of a problem than it used to be. Hashtags still get through which are less useful on Facebook than on Twitter where they can be searched, but their meaning can be deciphered. And hashtags are often used more as humorous commentary than as actual tags to be searched, and that meaning translates to either service.

The vast majority of my tweets that are automatically exported into Facebook are updates I would post separately there anyway, so exporting them is efficient, especially when I’m typing on a mobile device. The integration also prevents me from taking part in some Twitter memes, which is probably a good thing. The only significant downside is that people who use both services see updates twice. But are there many of these people? I use Twitter primarily and only check Facebook when I’m bored, and I assume that many of the people I’m friends with on each service also prefer one to the other. Empirically I know that people leave replies or click on links in each service, so I think the gains outweigh the costs here.

How about importing blog posts? To be honest, I’d rather not import my RSS feed into Facebook. I would much prefer that people subscribe via RSS to get notified of posts more reliably or read my site directly, generating ad revenue for me instead of Mark Zuckerberg. But as mentioned above, Facebook is huge, and many of its users aren’t using separate RSS readers. Nor is my site compelling enough that I expect them to make a point of visiting regularly. For these users blog posts are perfectly welcome as imported notes. And for users with RSS readers, these notes are fairly unobtrusive on Facebook. Since I’m more interested in being read than in maximizing ad revenue, I think the gains once again outweigh the costs.

(Incidentally, I’ve toyed with the idea of sending only a partial RSS feed to Facebook to encourage traffic to the site, but this would be inconsistent with my goal of not being annoying.)

Reasons not to link your blog into Twitter: Many bloggers link to every one of their posts on Twitter, either automatically or by hand. This lets users know that a blog has been updated without having to manually check the site. However this problem was solved more than a decade ago by RSS and RSS readers handle blogs far better than Twitter does. Twitter can present at best an excerpt of a little over 100 characters plus a link, so reading a post requires visiting a new page. This is less than ideal on a computer and potentially worthless on a mobile device.

It’s true that there may be some people who follow you on Twitter and don’t subscribe to your RSS feed. However this isn’t Facebook; Twitter is populated by more tech-savvy people who will use RSS if they want to. If they’re already subscribed to your blog, these automated Twitter links are needless duplication. If they aren’t subscribed, then there’s a good chance they just don’t find your blog that interesting. Either way you’re not doing them any favors by tweeting about every post.

I do link to individual posts occasionally, but only if I think they’re particularly worth highlighting. This can be an effective way to introduce followers to your blog and to drive traffic to specific posts. Hopefully some of these visitors will become regular readers. But if they don’t, one needn’t force the issue by trying to turn Twitter into an RSS aggregator. Let Twitter be its own thing.

In fairness, I’ll note that views on this topic are divided. According to Technorati’s 2009 State of the Blogosphere survey, 52% of responding bloggers who use Twitter syndicate their feeds to their accounts; Twitter has become a substitute for RSS readers for some users. Linking blog posts and Twitter is widely practiced and I may be hopelessly conservative in wishing it would stop. (As a producer of content I should like Twitter replacing RSS; please, click over to my site instead of viewing it in Google Reader! As a consumer of content I love full RSS feeds.)

Why not to link Foursquare with anything else: I enjoy Foursquare, but broadcasting one’s location on Foursquare is unlikely to be useful to anyone outside of one’s own city. Foursquare updates are essentially spam to friends on Facebook or Twitter who are in other locations.

Linking anything else to Twitter: There’s a growing tendency to transmit all of one’s online activity to Twitter. Before doing so, ask yourself if it would really create value for a significant number of your followers, or if it would be best left to friends on that specific service.

Disclaimer: This advice isn’t intended to be universal and you might have good reasons to adopt other practices. Maybe every one of your blog posts really is too insightful to miss, or perhaps you update your blog so rarely that every post is an event. Or maybe I’m totally failing at not being annoying online, in which case feel free to let me know in the comments.

As always, you can subscribe to this blog’s RSS feed here or follow me on Twitter here.

Fun with comment forms

If one measure of Facebook’s popularity is the number of totally inept computer users who have joined, then the site is astronomically popular indeed. Witness here, and seriously do click over to ReadWriteWeb and read the comments.

A similar thing happened on this blog a few years ago that new readers probably haven’t seen yet. Back in 2004 when GMail was new and exclusive I wrote a post about a new GMail application, “application” meaning computer program. This ended up being a high-ranking post for people searching for a GMail application form and for the next five years it pulled in more than 300 comments from people seeking GMail, most of them with limited English. The fun starts after the first 15 or so legitimate comments.

(In hindsight I should have updated the post with instructions for getting GMail rather than having them in the comment thread, but I was always amused by the slow trickle of random requests. Having just realized that it still gets occasional comments I’ve added a link.)

[Via the Twitter feed of Peter Suderman.]

Blogging and job searching

I’m in this MSNBC story by Eve Tahmincioglu talking about how cocktail blogging helped me land a job in Portland after my move from DC:

For mixologist Jacob Grier, his blog “Liquidity Preference” helped him land a primo bartender job at the Carlyle Restaurant in Portland, Ore.

Grier started blogging about making unusual cocktails two years ago as an outlet for his love of food and drinks. While working for a bar in Washington, D.C., he decided to move to Portland because of the culinary scene.

Thanks to the blog, he had already connected with two well-known mixologists in Portland. Those contacts ended up taking him to an industry event where Grier met the bar manager at the Carlyle, and the rest is history.

Yes, this is a bit ironic after just getting the news that my bar is closing. Time to start the search all over again, eh?

If you’re coming here from the MSNBC site, click here for cocktail posts. And if you happen to own a craft cocktail bar, let’s talk.

Tweeting from the air

I hesitate to post yet another article defending Twitter from its detractors, but David Carr’s piece is very good and this anecdote is too amazing not to share:

The act of publishing on Twitter is so friction-free — a few keystrokes and hit send — that you can forget that others are out there listening. I was on a Virgin America cross-country flight, and used its wireless connection to tweet about the fact that the guy next to me seemed to be the leader of a cult involving Axe body spray. A half-hour later, a steward approached me and said he wondered if I would be more comfortable with a seat in the bulkhead. (He turned out to be a great guy, but I was doing a story involving another part of the company, so I had to decline the offer. @VirginAmerica, its corporate Twitter account, sent me a message afterward saying perhaps it should develop a screening process for Axe. It was creepy and comforting all at once.)

Think about that: In 30 minutes someone working for Virgin saw his Tweet, figured out which fight he was on, and got a message to an employee on the plane to locate him and offer him a new seat. Perhaps they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble for someone who’s profile doesn’t mention being a writer for the New York Times, but still, it’s like we’re living in the future!

The truest sentence in his article is this one:

There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.

[Via Maureen Ogle.]

Previously:
Selfish benefits of tweeting
Follow me on Twitter here

Thanks for the links

One downside of publishing a daily links post is that I can’t always give credit where credit is due. However there are a few sites that consistently provide fodder for morning links, and I’d like to acknowledge them here.

The Morning News — The inspiration for this site’s morning links, and they do it twice a day! Certainly one of the most diverse and interesting sites I peruse in my RSS reader.

ColdMud — Absolutely the site to go to for daily food news.

Marginal Revolution — Tyler Cowen has lately taken to posting daily links, and given his wide-ranging cultural interests and economic insight it’s no surprise that he links to so much intriguing material.

The Agitator — Radley Balko needs no introduction on this blog and his site is consistently a great source for daily updates.

The Stogie Guys — I don’t smoke frequently enough to make good use of their cigar reviews, but their Friday Samplers of tobacco-related news always provide something interesting.

BlURL — Lately I get just as many, if not more, useful links from Twitter as I do from RSS feeds and traditional news sites. However I can’t always follow Twitter throughout the day. BlURL handily provides a list of only tweets that include links to other sites, making it an incredibly useful service when I’m looking to round out the morning links.

What am I missing? What are the sites I should absolutely be checking every morning?

Update: I should include Google Reader too. The “shared items” link is one of the first I click when starting up my computer.

Good news from Google ads

I hate the teeth-whitening and flab-vanishing ads that sometimes appear on this page just as much as you do. I ban them sometimes, but there are too many to keep track of and Google’s best filtering options aren’t offered to weblogs. So this is excellent news:

Google has made a minor shift in its policy that has major implications. Up until now it has taken action against ads, not advertisers. If an ad violated one of Google’s terms of use, the search giant would take it out of circulation, but that’s it. Google briefed TBM on its new policy: It will now ban the advertiser, not the ad, effectively neutering the advertiser’s ability to shift from one ad and shell site to another. Think of it like the struggle between the police and a graffiti vandal. Up until now Google has only been erasing the tags after they’ve been put up. Going forward, they’re going to take away his spray cans and put a GPS collar on him, making sure he never does it again. It would be a principled stand by any company, but especially by Google because of its position in the market. I worry, though, that the rest of the industry won’t pay attention. On this issue, Google might be a leader without any followers.

I trust the scammy nature of these ads is obvious to the dentally and physically perfected readers of this weblog, but I was unaware of just how scammy they really are:

There are handfuls of these get-beautiful/healthy/rich-quick schemes floating around the Internet, and all their advertising structures behave the same way: Some sketchy ad leads you to some sketchy testimonial page, which then leads you to the sketchy product itself. When you order the product, the vendor doesn’t always make clear that you’re signing up for a free trial, and when that’s over you’ll be charged up to $90 every month until you find a way to cancel. There isn’t much information about why all of these scams operate in the same way, even though this kind of Web advertising is quite prevalent.

Honestly I would have been just as happy with a “Don’t display unsightly human anatomy” ad filter, but this solution seems much more feasible. I hope Google’s new program works and that such ads will be showing up less frequently here in the near future.

[Via BoingBoing.]

FourSquaring in Portland

The new Portland food blog Under the Table with a Jen has a story up today that’s all about FourSquare. Lance Mayhew and I are quoted extensively in it, and I even managed to answer her questions about losing mayorships without making a Sam Adams joke. Go me!

The story also unveils a new incentive to visit Carlyle:

But, he agrees, so far Foursquare has been largely overlooked. “So far I haven’t seen restaurants doing anything to formally acknowledge FourSquare. My friend Ron Dolette (from PDXplate.com) has a secure hold on the mayorship of Carlyle right now, so I’m going to buy a drink for the first person who can unseat him.”

Ron’s a little too complacent in his hold on the mayorship right now, so I’m hoping we can give him some competition.

Twitter lists and fake following

Twitter is rolling out the option to make lists of people you follow. So far most of the lists I’ve seen have been about categorizing people: booze, irl, libertariat, coffee, and rock-solid-peckerwoods (yes!) are a few I find myself in. This is useful and, since most lists are public, a potentially great way to find new people worth following.

So far I’m just using the feature to deal with the massive flow of tweets, creating a separate list of the people I care most about following. I can check this short list when I’ve been offline for a while without being inundated by posts, dipping into the main Twitter stream whenever I have more time. This is basically the feature I hoped for back in April:

A simpler approach would be to offer people binary levels of contacts on Twitter: One A-List they never want to miss and a larger stream they follow only as time allows. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s an easy solution. It could be implemented completely within a browser if Twitter decided to make this happen. Yet as far as I know, this option doesn’t exist anywhere.

And now we have it. Thanks, Twitter!

Using lists like this reduces the costs of following new people since one no longer has to worry that they’ll distract attention from more relevant content. But there’s a downside to this: It basically enables the “fake following” feature of FriendFeed. When users have to compete for attention, the decision to follow someone signals some level of commitment and engagement (unless one is the type of user who follows everyone indiscriminately). Now there’s no way to tell if someone is really following you or just politely fake following you, which I think might reduce some of the live conversation aspects of Twitter that make it such a cool platform.

Twitter has become too big to not have a feature like this. In the past few months I’ve been reluctant to follow new people simply because I don’t want to miss updates from my close friends in the flood of tweets from acquaintances. So yes, it’s probably worth paying the costs of having lists, but I’m going to miss the transparent simplicity of the old system.

This post is not an ad

In my previous post about the FTC’s new guidelines for bloggers I wondered whether the new rules would apply to Twitter. According to the FTC, they do:

As for Twitter, the FTC isn’t letting you get a pass with the excuse that 140 characters–Twitter’s famous text limit–is simply too short. “There are ways to abbreviate a disclosure that fit within 140 characters,” Cleland said. “You may have to say a little bit of something else, but if you can’t make the disclosure, you can’t make the ad.”

That’s funny, when I mention liking a product on Twitter, I didn’t know I am “making an ad.” I thought I was expressing an opinion to the people who follow my feed.

Lots of my tweets, I mean ads, are in technical violation of this rule. I go to tastings and dinners all the time. I’m going to one tonight, in fact. If a few hours from now I post something like “This cocktail with Brand X is delicious!” without adding that they gave me the drink for free, I could be fined for not making the disclosure.

Of course I’m not so much of an internet celebrity (alas!) that the big bad FTC is going to spend time reading my tweets. But it’s silly make this activity illegal and it raises the prospect that people will use FTC complaints as a way to get revenge against bloggers and Twitterers they don’t like. Like Jeff Jarvis, I would rather have a messy, unregulated, and free internet than an internet that’s aggressively sanitized by the government busybodies.

Update: Jack Shafer weighs in here. Thanks, Ben!

We are journalists, not marketers

The FTC has issued new guidelines cautioning bloggers to disclose ties to products they endorse or risk an $11,000 fine:

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Likewise, if a company refers in an advertisement to the findings of a research organization that conducted research sponsored by the company, the advertisement must disclose the connection between the advertiser and the research organization. And a paid endorsement – like any other advertisement – is deceptive if it makes false or misleading claims.

Yes, it’s true: Sometimes marketers send me stuff hoping that I will write about it. Shocking, right?

Speaking only of the booze blogging world, I don’t see how this rule is either necessary or workable. It’s not necessary because we all know that our credibility will take a hit if we endorse bad products. I’m more likely to mention a product that I’ve received for free than one that I have to pay for simply because I don’t have an infinite budget for liquor, but I’m not going to sell out by giving a review to every crappy product that hits my door; I have the barely touched bottles of flavored spirits to prove it. (Actually I don’t, because I give those away for friends to use at house parties when people are too drunk to care.)

If there’s a demand for disclosure policies bloggers will provide them. Doug’s doing this now at his Pegu Blog by appending every post using a free product with a note saying that “the Liquor Fairy was here.” It’s a good idea and seems to work for him. In my case though I’d have a hard time deciding when to include a disclaimer, in part because I’m courted by marketers not just as a blogger but as a bartender as well.

A clear case of when I could (and generally do) include a disclaimer is when I get a package in the mail with a sample bottle and a note saying the sender hopes I will write about the product. Some less clear and entirely realistic cases include:

A liquor company holds a contest for bartenders offering real or potential rewards to those who participate by creating a drink with their product. I like the drink I come up with and feature it here; I mention that it was for a contest but don’t specify the rewards of participation.

A liquor company gives me a bottle or taste of their product unaware that I am a blogger. I like the product and write about it.

A liquor company takes me to dinner and offers samples of their products. A few months later the same company comes out with a new product that I independently purchase and enjoy. I write about it here.

A liquor company holds an open tasting event geared toward bartenders, bloggers, and enthusiasts. I attend and blog about the product.

A liquor company sends me a bottle for review. I don’t review it here, but I mention liking it on Twitter.

You get the idea: Spend enough time in this business and a lot of free stuff is going to come your way. And given the massive consolidation in the liquor industry there’s not going to be any brand owned by one of the big companies that I won’t have some plausible connection to. Trying to disclose all of this would get rapidly out of hand; not disclosing it leaves me liable to thousands of dollars in fines under an untested rule. (It’s unlikely the FTC would come after me, but all it takes is one vindictive person to file a complaint.)

I’ve been considering adding an explicit review policy to this site and may do so soon, but I don’t know how I could fully comply with the FTC guidelines even if I wanted to. The same ends are accomplished by bloggers’ need to maintain credibility without the potentially chilling effect this rule would have if it’s enforced too liberally.

What strikes me as the biggest flaw in these guidelines is that they treat bloggers as equivalent to celebrity endorsers or “word-of-mouth marketers” rather than as journalists. With possible exception for sites designed specifically as disguised ads, it seems better to leave disclosure to journalistic discretion rather than codifying it into law.

[Via @BrookeOB1.]

Is FourSquare the next Twitter?

I’m reluctant to sign up for new social networks these days, but this post from Ryan Graves has convinced me to join FourSquare:

I need you to join Foursquare. Even if you think it’s a waste of time or “nerdy”, I’m trying to help you avoid being late to the party…again. There are a few key reasons that lead me to believe Foursquare will be huge, at least huge enough for the non-internet person to benefit from. A few of those reason are the huge potential that is location based applications, it’s fun and non-internet people can see why they’d want to join it, and it helps cities work better.

The way Foursquare works is, you go to a venue (bar, restaurant, park, etc.) and check in. Once you’ve checked in Foursquare awards you points and tallies the amount of times that you’ve checked in there. You’ll receive more points at more popular places and if you’re the person who’s checked in at that venue the most you’ll become the mayor. Also, by checking in to multiple venues and checking in often you receive badges for your check ins. The competitive mood of the game works incredibly well for it’s distribution and is quickly addicting.

It’s still clearly a young service and the user interface isn’t very intuitive. The iPhone app works best with location services turned on, which is a drain on battery life. Despite this I’m enjoying it so far and see a lot of potential for finding friends when they’re nearby.

I’m not sure how much I’ll get into the competitive nature of FourSquare, though it does offer some advantages to those of us with non-normal working hours:

You can only earn points at certain times:
* We DON’T give points for normal-work-hour checkins (e.g. Mon -> Fri, 8am -> 4p)

This would make it very easy for me to become Mayor of Carlyle, which I currently am. But I’m going to stop checking in there and hope someone else takes the title (it could be you!).

As with any social network, FourSquare’s usefulness will grow with its user base (at least up to the point where people you want to avoid join the service). I’d especially like to see more people in Portland on it. If you do sign up, find me here.

[Via Julie, who also beat me to Twitter.]

Selfish benefits of tweeting

Tyler Cowen suggests that there are few private gains from producing content on Twitter:

In my portrait Twitter consists mainly of social benefits yet it offers few private gains for many generators of the content. So why do so many people do it? Maybe it tricks our instincts for sociability or connection.

Sociability is certainly a major benefit and I wouldn’t consider it a “trick.” Sure many tweets are about trivial things, but so are many real world conversations. I like Clive Thompson’s description of this as “social proprioception.”

However the social aspects of Twitter have seemed to decline in importance over the past year with a greater emphasis on pointing to content elsewhere; I now find nearly as many useful links in my Twitter feed as I do in my RSS reader. So why actively tweet instead of passively taking it all in? I get a few selfish benefits from publishing on the site:

Driving traffic — I no longer count on a blog post to get traffic on its own. My number of subscribers on Google Reader has languished around 160 for months while in a little over a year I’ve picked up more than 550 followers on Twitter. Today if I want a post to get attention I link to it on Twitter and Facebook. (This begs the question of whether blogging itself offers benefits, which I talk about here.)

Attracting customers — I work in a bar. I make money by getting people into that bar. Twitter lets me tell people about new drinks, promote events, and just generally draw attention to the place. It also raises the profile of the bar outside of Portland, making it more likely that out of town visitors will stop in.

Reminding people that I exist — That’s weird to say, but it’s important. When people are deciding whom to invite to events, send samples to, or hire for a gig, being active on Twitter helps ensure they’re keeping me in mind.

Crowd-sourcing — Tyler says he hasn’t learned how to ask for advice on Twitter very well, but it’s easy: Don’t ask stupid (i.e. easily Googleable) questions and don’t ask too many of them. I’ve used it to source good restaurants, my bike bag, cooking and mixology tips, and other things. Of course to get advice you need followers, which means it’s a return on being active.

Meeting new people — Twitter has been a surprisingly good medium for getting to know people that I might have met otherwise but probably wouldn’t have. And after months of following them on Twitter I know them far better than I would from exchanging a few emails. This is a great benefit when we finally meet in person.

Why blog?

Laura McKenna has an excellent post up about how the blogosphere (does that word mean anything anymore?) has changed since she got into it about six years ago. I started blogging at about the same time she did. Back then there was a sense of being part of a new, vibrant, open community. Even as a 21-year-old DC intern with a poorly designed website it seemed easy to break into. We had monthly Blog-o-Rama happy hours at which local bloggers could meet. Now blogging has evolved from a world unto itself into just another medium; merely having a blog no longer counts as much of a point of commonality.

McKenna’s third observation hits the mark:

Bloggers have undermined the blogosphere. Bloggers do not link to each other as much as they used to. It’s a lot of work to look for good posts elsewhere, and most bloggers have become burnt out. Drezner and Farrell had a theory that even small potato bloggers would have their day in the sun, if they wrote something so great that it garnered the attention of the big guys. But the big guys are too burnt out to find the hidden gems. So, good stuff is being written all the time, and it isn’t bubbling to the top.

Many have stopped using blogrolls, which means less love spread around the blogosphere. The politics of who should be on a blogroll was too much of a pain, so bloggers just deleted the whole thing.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone given the impracticality of including hat tips with my morning links. On the other hand, the links do allow me to spread some traffic to people who write interesting posts.

I’ve noticed over the past year or so that it’s become more difficult for posts to draw attention to themselves. It used to be that I could count on a particularly good entry getting linked elsewhere without much further effort on my part. Now if I don’t also promote it through Facebook, Twitter, or other means it’s not likely to get much of a boost. This is perhaps a good thing: No longer must we bloggers skim through each other’s long-winded posts. Now we can just skim through each other’s 140-character tweets and only click on the best stuff.

Another consequence of this is that’s it much harder to track how much influence a post has. Site traffic and comments used to be a reliable measure. Now much of a post’s reach extends far off the blog itself: into RSS readers, Facebook, and tweets. My blog is probably reaching more people now than it ever has, but it’s much harder to know this.

So why blog? That’s a question I’ve been coming back to lately. It’s less obviously worthwhile than it used to be. Keeping up a blog takes time, time that might be better spent writing longer pieces for established publications. Still, there are benefits:

Self-promotion — Writing this blog is how I got my last job in DC and it helped immensely with my job search in Portland. My bar resume was rather thin when I got here, but my cocktail writing put me on the radar of several people in the local bar community and helped establish myself in the industry. The blog has also helped with my writing, giving me a product to send to editors and sometimes prompting editors to contact me for articles. It’s also led to a few media requests from other writers stumbling across my site.

Social networking — Facebook is great for keeping up with existing friends, but blogging and microblogging seem far better for meeting new people, especially in niche communities. A successful blog can also cross-promote one’s other online activities.

Extended discussion — For most bloggers, publishing an article elsewhere is the best way to reach a larger audience. But for continuing a discussion far into the future, responding to feedback from readers, and approaching a topic from multiple angles, nothing beats a blog.

Hits from search engines — Though a blog may not be generally popular, it can become a leading source on search engines for selected niche topics. Or in my case, become an impromptu support group for people scared of camel crickets.

It’s fun! — Since I’m not making money at this and don’t expect to do so anytime soon, there must be other compensating benefits.

These are all good reasons to keep blogging. That said, they’re not necessarily great reasons for someone to start a new blog, or to continue blogging with the goal of building a larger readership. A combination of devoting more time to published pieces coupled with attentive social networking might be a more productive way to reach people. So might joining a group blog rather than trying to go it alone.

If you do blog, why do you do so?

[Hat tip - remember those? -- to Megan McArdle.]

Toward a supply-side theory of assorted links

Tyler Cowen posted recently about the apparent increasing popularity of bloggers posting daily lists of assorted links. He asks questions of his readers: Do they click? Should he care if they do? The comments are interesting.

That’s the demand-side of assorted links. What about the supply-side? Why do bloggers write these posts? I started providing daily morning links in January, 2008. I based the idea on the twice-daily lists of links provided by The Morning News, my expectation being that they would be a useful way of getting people to visit my site or subscribe to my RSS feed. The links are basically a loss leader: They take a bit of work each day and aren’t directly rewarding in terms of links back, but by attracting readers to the site they make it more likely that people will read my longer posts too. Or as Jason at 37signals put it in a post about why the Drudge Report is one of the best designed sites on the Web, “The more you send people away the more they’ll come back.” (The other main reason for the feature is to give myself a convenient way of linking to things I find interesting but about which I have little to say.)

My rough impression is that this has worked, based on positive feedback from readers and a near doubling in daily traffic in the year or so following the implementation of morning links. But there are confounding variables: In the same period I wrote more normal blog posts, published elsewhere more frequently, redesigned the site, and did a guest stint blogging at Radley Balko’s popular weblog.

Unfortunately the stat programs I’m currently running don’t tell me much about how many readers click on the links, especially those of you who read via RSS. So consider this an open forum on the morning links feature. Do you read them? Would you rather have more numerous, shorter posts, and fewer links each morning? Should they go off the sidebar and onto the main page? Anything else I could improve? Let me know what you think.

(In case you were wondering, I use Kates Gasis’ excellent Sideblog WordPress plugin to make the feature work. It’s a very simple way to shunt selected posts over to a sidebar.)

Twitter tools, pt. 2: Enemy of the good

When I first got into Twitter I entertained the idea of limiting myself to following just 100 people. This seemed like a feasible idea at the time, but now that I’m following 196 people I realize how ridiculous it was. I have no desire to cut the number of people I follow in half, but I’ve also reached the point where the volume of Twitter activity is getting a little unmanageable. Unfortunately I haven’t found any tools to make this better.

Take the problem of Twitter/Facebook interaction. Twitter posts and Facebook status updates serve similar purposes but aren’t exactly the same; responses to Tweets take the form of another Tweet rather than a comment, so the output can be overwhelming for Facebook users if the two accounts are integrated so that all Tweets become Facebook updates. The perfect solution to this problem is to designate which Tweets get sent to Facebook. Selective Twitter Status is an app that only passes on Tweets that include a “#fb” hashtag. That solves the problem for Facebook, but takes up precious characters in Twitter and pollutes the service with a meaningless tag.

A better solution would be to filter out any @replies. As a general rule on Twitter, any post starting with @somebody is directed primarily to that person and not particularly useful for Facebook users. Filtering @replies is an imperfect solution; some @replies are valued on Facebook and some non-@replies are worthless. However, this simple filter would take care of most of the problem and would require no effort from users. I’m amazed that, to my knowledge, an app that does this doesn’t exist. It’s a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

The same is true for handling the volume of Tweets from one’s contacts. I spent a couple hours this afternoon playing with Tweetdeck and Seesmic, two desktop apps using the Twitter API. They both allow users to separate their Twitter feeds into groups. For example, I could have an A-List for people whose updates I want to be sure not to miss and separate lists for cocktail, coffee, politics, and Portland people. I can see how this would be useful. The downside is that running these apps requires leaving my web browser for the Adobe Air environment, a tool from a company not exactly known for its trim computing resource demands. And worse than that, the apps haven’t worked all that well for me: Tweetdeck fails to include all of my contacts and the user interface for Seesmic is extremely unintuitive.

A simpler approach would be to offer people binary levels of contacts on Twitter: One A-List they never want to miss and a larger stream they follow only as time allows. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s an easy solution. It could be implemented completely within a browser if Twitter decided to make this happen. Yet as far as I know, this option doesn’t exist anywhere.

Programs like Tweetdeck and Seesmic are still young and might eventually take Twitter to the next level. I hope they do. Until then I’d really like to see some simpler, imperfect solutions to the problems Twitter’s rapid growth has caused. Since those don’t seem to exist, I’m stuck missing updates from people I’d like to follow and spamming Facebook friends with incomprehensible Twitter updates. I don’t seem to be alone in this.

Update: Barzelay notes that the Facebook Twitter appears to now filter out @-replies, a welcome and recent development.